NEW DELHI (AFP) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party said Monday that exit polls from the country’s marathon election showed an “overwhelming” vote in favour of a second term for the Hindu nationalist leader.
About 65 percent of India’s 900 million-strong electorate turned out over the six weeks of voting, the election commission said.
While the country faces a nerve-jangling three day wait until the official count begins, media polls after Sunday’s final round said Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies would secure enough seats to form a new government.
Modi, who fought an acrimonious campaign framed around his tough stance on national security, and other top BJP leaders made no immediate claim of victory.
As the vote drew to a close, the nationalist leader spent the weekend at a retreat in the Himalayas. He posted a Twitter picture of himself in a Hindu saffron robe looking out over the mountains.
Party spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said the polls “clearly show a huge positive vote for the leadership of Narendra Modi who has served the country with unmatched dedication.
“That people reward good performance has once again been proved by the overwhelming public mandate. This is a slap for the abusive opposition that made baseless charges and spoke lies,” he added.
The BJP was not expected to match its landslide tally in 2014, which gave it enough seats to govern in its own right, but leading polls projected the ruling party and its allies winning between 282 and 313 seats of the 543 candidates elected to India’s lower house.
Modi’s alliance had 336 seats in the outgoing parliament.
The opposition Congress party was predicted to double its 2014 tally of 44 seats – a historic low since India’s independence in 1947 – but still fall far short of a claim to governing. The party has pointed to the unreliability of polls in previous elections.
After seven rounds of voting spread over six weeks, a huge security cordon was thrown around electronic voting machines and boxes of paper ballots used for the world’s biggest election before the official count starts on Thursday.
The opposition had led an onslaught on Modi’s handling of the economy and failure to create jobs during the campaign.
But the vote increasingly became a personal referendum on one of India’s most popular and divisive prime ministers ever.
The 68-year-old leader went to scores of rallies across the country to fire up his Hindu base and turn the campaign into a debate on national security following tit-for-tat air raids with Pakistan in March.
Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi traded insults throughout the campaign.
Gandhi, 48, attacked Modi over alleged corruption in a French defence deal and the plight of farmers, as well as on the economy.
Modi’s government has fallen short on creating jobs for the million Indians entering the labour market every month, while the shock introduction of a sudden ban on high-denomination cash in 2016 disrupted business and Indian banks are struggling with huge bad debts.
Hostilities spilled over again on the final day of voting.
Tens of thousands of security forces guarded polling booths in West Bengal state on Sunday where the BJP has made a push against the regional Trinamool Congress party.
An improvised bomb was thrown at one Kolkata polling station and security forces intervened to stop supporters of the BJP, communists and other parties from blockading voting booths across the state capital.
In Madhya Pradesh state, in central India, a BJP worker was allegedly shot dead by a Congress official in Indore, police told media.
The Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies estimates that parties have spent more than $7 billion on the election, making it one of the most expensive campaigns held in the world.
Much of the cash was spent on social media, where the parties used armies of “cyber warriors” to bombard India’s Facebook and WhatsApp users with messages.
Fake news and doctored images abounded, including of Gandhi and Modi having lunch with Imran Khan, prime minister of arch-rival Pakistan, as well as an image purporting to show Rahul’s sister Priyanka intoxicated.